Every culture develops its own social and architectural definition of the house. Socially, the ancient Egyptian house was defined by a set number of often closely related individuals (a household), who lived and worked together. Unlike Arab culture, Egyptian culture attached little genealogical significance to the house.
Architecturally, the definition of the house usually implies the differentiation of an “inside” from an “outside.” Owing to the hot climate, the division between the inside and the outside was particularly emphasized in Egyptian houses. While the outer appearance of the house was fortresslike, the interior was organized around a central hall or courtyard. In studying ancient Egyptian houses spatially, a distinction between three overlaying spatial definitions of houses proves helpful: (1) a house is the entire space used by the household (a functional definition); (2) a house is a piece of land delineated by an enclosure wall (implying a legal definition); (3) a house is a building comprising a set of rooms serving a set number of individuals as living space.
The ordinary word designating a “house” in Egyptian was pr, a term that focuses on the house as something from which its inhabitants “come forth” (pri). The word's range of meaning was extended both in content and in spatial terms to designate, for example, someone's property. More restricted to the architectural aspect of a house may have been ʿ.t (“element” or “limb”). Domestic architecture was for a long time neglected by Egyptology in favor of monumental and religious architecture, despite two early excavations that had uncovered significant remains of domestic architecture: at Kahun (now called Illahun) by William M. Flinders Petrie from 1889 to 1891 and Tell el-Amarna by Ludwig Borchardt from 1913 to 1916. For a long time, Herbert Ricke's Der Grundriß des Amarna-Wohnhauses remained the only thorough investigation of the subject. Scientific exploration of town sites was initiated in the 1960s particularly by Manfred Bietak at Tell ed-Dabʿa and by Werner Kaiser at Elephantine. Especially in the 1980s, such studies predominated, but in contrast to the architectural approach followed by Ricke, they have focused largely on social and functional aspects.
Evidence for the origins of Egyptian architecture is still scanty. Structures found at settlement sites of the fifth millennium BCE (at Merimde, el-Hammamiya, Omari, and Maadi) include semisubterranean, oval shelters constructed of mud. The earliest rectangular buildings, the Naqada I period at Hierakonpolis and Maadi, were single-roomed structures, that measured about 3 by 4 to 5 meters (10 by 13 to 16 feet). Later sources have suggested that a variety of other building types, constructed both of bricks and of organic materials, existed during Predynastic times.
The domestic architecture of the Old Kingdom has been little studied. At town sites (such as at Elephantine or Hierakonpolis) and in most of the priests' settlements (near the pyramids of Sneferu at Dahshur, Menkaure at Giza, Neferirkare Kakai at Abusir, and Pepy II at Saqqara and near the sun temple of Userkaf at Abusir), only small dwellings have been recorded. Typical were houses with a large room (the hall or court) in the back of the house and two smaller rooms in the front, one serving as an antechamber, the other as a private room accessible only from the back room. Staircases were sometimes found in the antechamber.
Larger, more complex houses have been found only at the funerary complex of Khentkawes at Giza. Characteristic is an elongated central chamber whose southern end is partitioned by pilasters. Located in a public section of the house, the room is likely to have served the master of the house as one in which to present himself to guests. One of the more private chambers possesses a niche for a bed along one end of the side walls. Winding entrance corridors isolate the interior of the house from the outside.
Houses comparable neither to examples of the Old Kingdom mentioned above nor to any type familiar from the Middle Kingdom have been found in rural Egypt (at Kom el-Hisn, at Abu Ghalib, and at Tell ed-Dabʿa, stratum e).
In the 1980s, the most progress was made in the study of the domestic architecture of the Middle Kingdom. At least four contemporary house types may now be differentiated. Most of the evidence still derives from settlements founded by the state (such as the pyramid cities at Illahun and Dahshur, the temple complexes at Abydos and Medamud, the settlement at Kasr el-Sagha, and the fortresses in Nubia: Buhen, Mirgissa, Askut, Shalfak, Uronarti, Semna, and Kumma); all therefore reflect the architecture designed and employed by the state.
One type of house attested at those sites is characterized by identical, extremely elongated, vaulted chambers placed one next to the other. Two, four, or five such chambers were each entered separately from a front court, which united the rooms to constitute a house unit. The crucial difference in houses of the second type are connecting doorways within the elongated chambers. Their ground plans also are more differentiated than examples of the first type. Such houses have either two or three chambers, with only the central one (usually wider than the others) being directly accessible from the front court. One of the neighboring chambers sometimes has a niche at the back end, possibly for a bed. Frequently, some smaller, square rooms are added behind the chambers. A special status symbol was a portico, constructed against the house and along the entire width of the courtyard, to shade and protect the entrance to the central chamber. An antechamber—often found in combination with an entrance corridor—ensured the privacy of the house.
At many sites, the smaller houses can be attributed to the first type and the larger houses, usually the residence of the official in charge, to the second type. At Illahun, however, houses of all sizes were derived from the second type. In examples of small size, built to house workmen or low-ranking officials, only one or two chambers were found, the court being reduced to a broad antechamber. An additional annex (serving as a separate living unit or as a work area?) was commonly in evidence. High officials of the settlement were accommodated in large complexes, in which three houses of different sizes were combined with various storage facilities and workshops.
At settlements not constructed by the state, there was a range of house types. At el-Lisht, the architecture of the state had great influence on the design of houses, with some resembling closely the houses of the second type. The type found most frequently at Tell ed-Dabʿa, though, resembling the small examples at Illahun, is different enough in character to constitute a distinct type of house. This third type usually has only two interconnected, elongated rooms, constructed within an enclosed yard; the rooms are more spacious than those in houses of comparative size at Illahun and, in contrast, were not vaulted.
A fourth, entirely unrelated type of house is being excavated at Elephantine. The dominant feature within them is a large central space (a columned hall or courtyard)—usually, but not always, occupying the entire width of the building. Among the other, smaller rooms surrounding the central space are an antechamber at the entrance to the house, a room with an oven or fireplace for cooking, and a room with a central column. Similar houses have been discovered at Deir el-Ballas.
Additional evidence for the domestic architecture of the Middle Kingdom has been supplied by models of houses to be deposited in tombs, made of pottery (from Rifeh) or wood (from Meketra). While undoubtedly reproducing the general character of contemporary architecture, the models are primarily of a symbolic nature; therefore, the reliability of the models as a source of information on contemporary houses is controversial.
The house of the New Kingdom as known from Tell el-Amarna is the best documented of all Egyptian house types. Herbert Ricke's Der Grundriß des Amarna-Wohnhauses remains the fundamental study on the subject, despite the fact that the evidence on which his study was based has since been complemented by work both at Amarna and at many other sites (Elephantine, Deir el-Medina, Malqata, Medinet Habu, Sesebi, Tell ed-Dabʿa, and el-Lisht). As the principal method of design, Ricke identified the organization of the house into three distinct spatial zones arranged one behind the other, which Ricke interpreted as being of progressively private character: a semipublic zone, a central zone, and a private zone. Among the wide range of houses of all sizes that were developed on this structural type, two were particularly characteristic: a smaller 40–60 square meters (135–200 square feet) and a larger 90–130 square meters (300–430 square feet) version.
The smaller version met the basic spatial needs of a simple household. The central zone, as the principal living space of the house community, is constituted by a single, nearly square hall (st hms, “place of sitting”?) that occupies the entire width of the building. A typical element in the room is a low bench or dais constructed against one of the walls: the seat of the head of the household. The hall provides the sole access to the rooms in the back of the house, characteristically comprising two separately entered, nearly square chambers. At Deir el-Medina, one of the rooms leads to the kitchen area in the back of the house. A staircase frequently situated in one of the back rooms or next to the hall adds the roof as a usable space. More or less temporary structures on the roof may have fulfilled similar functions as the back rooms: storage, sleeping, cooking. The semipublic zone of the house, either a yard or a broad hall protecting the privacy of the house, served as a further setting for various household activities, such as grinding grain or feeding animals. At Deir el-Medina a household shrine was regularly located in that space.
The larger version of the New Kingdom house is the so-called Amarna-villa. That house is generally situated as an elevated, nearly square, solitary building within a large estate that was defined by an enclosure wall. Various additional buildings (granaries, stables, servants' quarters, a well) were set within the enclosed area. Characteristic also was the existence of a garden, with a lake and a private shrine. Among the defined spaces inside the larger house, the following are usually found:
- 1. A square antechamber built against one end of the façade and entered from a ramp or a flight of stairs that led from the ground level to the elevated level. The area in front of the entrance door was frequently protected by a roof resting on a screen wall.
- 2. A broad front hall with two or four columns in a row. Windows, possibly decorated with a central papyrus-shaped column, may have opened onto the approach to the house, forming part of the façade.
- 3. A nearly square central hall with one, two, or four columns. The door that led from the front hall into the central hall established the main axis through the house, further emphasized by the symmetrical arrangement of all the other doorways that opened onto both the front hall and the central hall. The axis terminated at the back wall of the central hall, making the hall a place of rest. The hall was lighted by means of windows located above the level of the surrounding smaller chambers. Among the permanently installed furniture were a dais for chairs of the master and his wife, a support for water jars, and a bowl for embers.
- 4. A smaller square hall with one column. Furnished similar to the central hall, the room served for private gatherings.
- 5. A sleeping room with a niche at one end for the bed.
- 6. A bath with a flat stone basin and a separate toilet, with a toilet seat.
- 7. A staircase accessible from the central hall led to the roof, where additional private rooms constructed of lighter materials may have existed.
- 8. Various multifunctional side rooms were also found, which served as extra bedrooms and storage chambers.
As Elke Roik has shown, the Amarna-villa may also have been the type of house depicted in several tombs of the New Kingdom; controversial remains her thesis, however, that all New Kingdom houses were single-storied buildings. Archaeological evidence for a second story has since been recorded both at Tell el-Amarna and at el-Lisht. Several texts (a letter to Ahmose and the minutes on the division of estates) contain additional information on New Kingdom domestic architecture.
Domestic architecture of the Third Intermediate Period and the Late period has met little interest among Egyptologists. The few examples studied (at Medinet Habu, Karnak, and Elephantine) suggest that the tradition of the New Kingdom house persisted more or less unchanged for much of the Late period. In examples dating after the First Persian Occupation (from Elephantine), a tendency to develop the design of the house from the position of the staircase, rather than from the character of a central hall, may be noticed. Only additional evidence can verify the postulation of a gradual transition from the house types of the New Kingdom to the types of the Greco-Roman period.
Several well-preserved settlements of Greco-Roman times, particularly in the Faiyum area (at Karanis and at Dime) but also elsewhere (at Medinet Habu), provide a complete impression of the domestic architecture between the third century BCE and the eighth century CE. The characteristic type of house found at most sites might be called the “tower house,” usually higher than it was wide. As multistoried buildings, the houses were designed around a staircase; at each level, one or more rooms are accessible from the staircase. The space between the houses was occupied by various yards, including kitchen areas.
Housing elements discussed below include the walls, roofing, stairways, temperature control, sanitation concerns, and decoration.
Traditionally built of sun-dried bricks, a wall thickness of one or one and a half bricks was common; typical brick sizes were 28 × 14 × 9 centimeters, 30 × 15 × 10 centimeters, and 33 × 17 × 8 centimeters (11 × 5.5 × 3.5 inches, 11.75 × 6 × 4 inches, and 13 × 6.75 × 3.25 inches). While thinner walls may be found as minor partition elements, thicker walls sometimes served as status symbols. Historically, a general development, from thicker walls in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (up to six bricks at Illahun!) to thinner walls in the New Kingdom, has been observed. Openings in walls were used primarily for passage and the ventilation of otherwise closed spaces, lighting being of minor concern. The location of windows high above eye level allowed not only stronger light to enter rooms but also prevented a glaring effect from small openings. Openings were either roofed by small brick vaults or by horizontally placed beams of wood or stone. More rarely, entire frames were constructed of wood or stone. Windows, usually higher than wide, were frequently closed by a wooden (or stone) grille; a wooden shutter has been found at Amarna. Doors, unless left open, were furnished with a wooden door leaf that turned in a stone poleshoe (socket).
Two basic methods for the roofing of chambers were practiced. Employing the same building material for the roof as for the walls—mud bricks—rooms were covered by barrel vaults. Widely used both in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (examples were discovered at Abusir, el-Lisht, and Illahun), vaults have rarely been found in New Kingdom domestic architecture. A second method of roofing was the timbered ceiling; onto the wooden beams, reed mats were laid, then covered by mud. Although the use of vaults was generally restricted to a width of 2.5 meters (about 7.5 feet) and the use of timbered roofs to a width of 3.5 meters (about 10.5 feet), supports made the creation of larger spaces possible. While wooden (mostly octagonal) pillar supports placed on stone bases were most widely used in domestic architecture, many examples of plant-shaped stone columns are known. Generally, rooms in houses were supplied with a mud floor, renewed partially or completely every few years. A more luxurious version is the brick pavement found in upper-class houses. Burnt bricks, possibly used as paving, have been found at el-Lisht.
The vertical connection between the ground level and the roof area or between different levels in multistoried buildings was achieved by staircases. The steps were generally made of bricks, laid either on brick vaults or on wooden beams. The incline angle was often intended to be similar to our modern staircases (each step about 16–17 centimeters [6.25–6.75 inches] high and 27–30 centimeters [10.5–11.75 inches] deep). Only monumental examples have a much smaller incline angle.
Control of temperature.
The principal method of regulating the climate inside the house was its insulation. Relatively thick walls of (unburned!) bricks are a good insulator in themselves. Rooms of central importance were additionally protected by the surrounding side rooms. Openings were minimized, especially on the southern side of the house, which faces the sun for most of the daylight hours. The entrance was preferably located on the northern side, frequently at the back of a portico. Active methods of regulating the temperature included, aside from ventilation, the evaporation of water for cooling and the burning of wood in pottery bowls for heating.
Few sanitary installations have been found in Egyptian houses; a central sewage system did not exist. Only in the houses of the upper class at Tell el-Amarna were small baths and toilets found; all others used temporary installations (such as chamber pots).
Judging by the large number of houses studied so far, decoration was not a general practice in Egypt. Some house owners did, however, use decoration as a means of improving their quality of life and for exhibiting their wealth and status. Nearly all the construction elements of a house could be decorated in one way or another. The painting of walls with a black dado, colorful dado lines, and a yellow upper zone was a common practice, particularly during the Middle Kingdom; the white-washing of walls, and even floors, was found in all periods. Figurative wall decoration was rare and usually religious in character (such as the funerary scenes at Illahun or the fertility scenes at Deir el-Medina). A significant element for decoration were the entrance doors into the central living room; a wooden lighting grille above the two door leaves was frequently decorated with various symbols. Large windows were sometimes supplied with a plant-shaped central support, such as a papyrus-bundle column. The beams of the ceiling were sometimes painted. Columns of nearly all shapes of Egyptian architecture have been found in houses.
- Bietak, Manfred, ed. House and Palace in Ancient Egypt: International Symposium in Cairo, April 8 to 11, 1992. Vienna, 1996. Gives an overview of the current state of research.
- Borchardt, Ludwig, and Herbert Ricke. Die Wohnhäser in Tell el-Amarna. Berlin, 1980.
- Bruyère, Bernard. Rapport sur les fouilles de Deir el Médineh 1934–35. Cairo, 1939.
- Dunham, Dows. Second Cataract Forts. 2 vols. Boston, 1960–1967.
- Endruweit, Albrecht. Städtischer Wohnbau in Ägypten. Berlin, 1994. A detailed discussion of the influence of the climate on Egyptian domestic architecture.
- Husselman, Elinor. Karanis Excavations of the University of Michigan in Egypt, 1928–35: Topography and Architecture. Ann Arbor, 1979.
- Kemp, Barry. Amarna Reports. 5 vols. London, 1984–1989. Includes detailed studies on various topics relating to domestic architecture.
- Lacovara, Peter, ed. Deir el-Ballas: A Preliminary Report on the Deir el-Ballas Expedition 1980–1986. Winona Lake, Ind., 1990.
- Ricke, Herbert. Der Grundriß des Amarna-Wohnhauses. Leipzig, 1932.
- Roik, Elke. Das altägyptische Wohnhaus und seinë Darstellung im Flachbild. Frankfurt, 1988.
- Tietze, Christian. “Amarna I–II.” Zeitschrit für Ägyptische Sprache und Alterumskunde 113 (1985), 48–84; 114 (1986), 55–78. A study on the socioeconomic aspects of the houses at Amarna.
- von Pilgrim, Cornelius. Untersuchungen in der Stadt des Mittleren Reiches und der Zweiten Zwischenzeit. Elephantine, 18. Archäologische Neröffenlichungen, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Cairo, 91. Mainz, 1996. A well-founded treatment on the development of a typical Egyptian settlement and its house types.